Flexible packaging manufacturing serves a broad range of industries, creating and producing many different applications. Needs and applications vary widely and it is important to identify qualifications and standards for the best flexible packaging manufacturer for you to work with because they represent such a critical component of your supply chain. We’d like to share examples of the qualifications and standards for three verticals: snacks; pet food and treats; and medical.
One of the top industries for flexible packaging is snack food packaging. That being said, the word ‘snack’ implies many different types of foods. For the snack food brand making a wide range of foods, it is important that their packaging manufacturer has many capabilities. Examples of the more important include:
- Knowledge of Material Performance Characteristics – Snacks come in a vast array of shapes, sizes and composition and each combination has an optimal packaging barrier requirement to protect the contents. The barrier protection is a direct function of the types of film used to construct the final packaging as well as the gauge of those films and of a foil barrier layer if used. Your flexible packaging manufacturer should be well versed in the performance attributes and manufacturing packaging from the range of films available as raw materials
- Closure Options – Packaged snacks can range in size from single serving to family size. Consumers buying larger sizes will be opening and closing the packaging multiple times and expect to find the quality of the product unchanged from the “first chip to the last”. If your decision as a brand owner is to incorporate a closure into the package design, you want the closure to be an easy, convenient feature for the user. The most commonly used is a PTC (press-to-close) zipper. They come in a variety of profiles and your manufacturer should make a recommendation based on the dimensions, contents and weight of the filled package. Another option growing in popularity is a closure made from min hooks and loops (similar to Velcro) that offers the same protection as the PTC option but is easier to use because the two pieces don’t have to be perfectly aligned. Another benefit of the hook-and-loop closure is if your product produces crumbs, there is not a channel in the closure that can become clogged and cause problems getting a good seal with a PTC zipper. The same benefit extends to any powdered or granular product, e.g., dry cake mixes and sweeteners.
- Supply Chain Traceability – When food recalls occur, every aspect in the supply chain is scrutinized. A brand owner would be well served to make sure their packaging manufacturer has a system in place to track each raw material component used to make the packaging from the time it arrives at the manufacturer’s loading dock until it comes together in the finished packaging and is shipped to the brand owner.
Pet Food and Treats
While human and pet food and treat manufacturing share many attributes, some are emphasized a little more in one market than the other. Examples include:
- Printing Capabilities – Some of the most beautiful graphics in the packaging industry are found on pet food packages. They are typically a composition featuring one or multiple pets and they start off in the form of a high definition photographic image. The digital file containing the image is used to create printing plates to replicate the photo. Process printing is the term used to describe printing a photographic image on a packaging substrate. The most cost-effective, best quality process printed images that can be produced on flexible packaging is done using 8 color flexographic printing. The standard flexographic printing plate (2000-2200 dpi) produces a very nice image. Some manufacturers offer the option of hi-definition process printing using plates comprised of 4000-4400 dpi. The hi-definition image quality is virtually indistinguishable from a rotogravure process when the image is engraved on a metal cylinder.
- Lamination Process – Animals have a highly developed sense of smell relative to a human. For example, it has been measured that a dog’s sense of smell is at least 10,000 times more sensitive than a human’s. The process of manufacturing flexible packaging typically involves laminating multiple layers of films together using an adhesive. Many adhesives are solvent based. While films are good barriers to oxygen, the fact is that oxygen does migrate through all flexible packaging. The point is that when a solvent based adhesive used, an off-putting odor can eventually migrate through the packaging material into the inner space and impact the smell and taste of the products. When this occurs, it is not unusual that the pet won’t consume the food or treat. There are flexible packaging manufactures that use a solventless lamination process and it is worth your time and effort to identify them as potential suppliers.
The medical industry is subject to stringent FDA rules and regulations that encompass everything, including the packaging. If your product requires FDA approval and is packaged in flexible packaging, you are best served choosing a manufacturer with the knowledge, experience and reputation that will not create issues or concerns during the process. Below are some key attributes that should be included on the checklist.
- Independent Quality Certification – Certification by a widely accepted third party that a manufacturer is committed to and in fact meets the highest quality continuous improvement standards in their production processes is how brand owners can easily verify their vendor is “playing by the rules”. The International Standards Organization (ISO) is the best-known certification entity and their ISO 9001:2015 designation has become the go-to quality management standard for most manufacturers.
- Experience with a Wide Range of Packaging Materials – Flexible packaging for medical tests, devices, etc., often incorporates a layer of foil in the construction of the finished flexible material used to package and protect the medical product. A simple fact is that only a very small percentage of flexible packaging manufacturers have a long and successful track record custom manufacturing flexible packaging containing a layer of ultra-thin gauge foil. It is a notoriously difficult material to work with. You need to make sure you are talking to one of the experienced ones and it’s easy to begin the vetting process; just ask for a selection of samples of foil packaging from current customers. Each medical customer has put the manufacturer through their own initial qualification and periodic re-qualification process. As a result, more samples correlate to more successful external qualifications.
- In-House Testing Laboratory – Medical test and device OEMs should be assured that a critical component of quality management and continuous improvement exists when their manufacturer has an in-house testing lab. A number of important quality tests can only be conducted in a lab and the investment in skilled personnel and the necessary equipment to validate that the materials perform as they need to perform is a positive indicator that the manufacturer “walks-the-walk”.
When evaluating your options for the best flexible packaging manufacturer, it is important to take a step back and define what you really need. Utilize this checklist as you are vetting your options to ensure that you partner with an organization that meets all the important criteria.